Developing the Cataract Ergonomic Rocker

At last count, I’ve designed at least 26 chairs (there’s some debate on what constitutes a “new” design and what is simply a variation of a design). One of them was bad. Most of them are adequate. A few of them are really good.

The bad one came from a bad brief. A retailer “loved” our Werriwa lounge, but it was “outside their customer’s price point”. They asked for an “affordable” Australian-made lounge chair. I should have said no; if I could sell the Werriwa out of a shed in Queanbeyan, surely they should be able to sell the same chair from a prestigious Melbourne retail store.

Above left; The award winning Werriwa lounge chair (Australian Furniture of the Year Awards 2009 Excellence in Furniture Using Leather and Open Champion at the 2006 Sydney Timber and Working with Wood Show) in blackwood and Paloma Black leather. Photograph by Lisa McKelvie.

Above right; The ill-fated Estuary lounge chair in in jarrah with Paloma Forest Green leather. Photograph by Lisa McKelvie.

My Best Chair

The “best” chair that I’ve designed is the Cataract Ergonomic Rocker. I consider it my “best” chair because it is the most original concept (my “favourite” chair is actually the Cascade Rocker). I had a client who wanted a desk chair that was strong enough for him to rock back on. He simply loved to lean back in chairs, but they kept breaking (your mum was right, don’t rock back on the chairs!).

This might not sound like a light-bulb moment, but I simply thought “if you want to lean back in a chair, then it should be rocker”. But I had never seen a desk rocker. Could it even be done? Wouldn’t it tip over backwards?

There was a lot going on at the time; I had just finished teaching chair design at the (now defunct) Australian School of Fine Furniture in Launceston, Tassie (incidentally, the name “Cataract” comes from Cataract Gorge in Launceston). In preparation for that class, I had just re-read Galen Cranz’s, “The Chair”.

Above; The Cataract Ergonomic Rocker in jarrah. Pictured here in a Canberra residence. Photograph by Adam McGrath.

If you boil down Cranz’s argument it goes as follows: “Sitting in chairs is bad for our body and we shouldn’t do it, but our culture and technology make chairs almost unavoidable, so at least we should sit actively”.

Our bodies constantly move. We are always changing our stance and posture. Bad chairs lock us in place. Good chairs allow us to move in a natural way. A great chair responds to your movements. In short, the commission for the Cataract came at just the right moment in my own development as a designer to put it all together into an original format.

Not As Easy as it Looks

If we go back to the Estuary chair, I clearly remember the whole design process, because it was like pulling teeth. Every detail was agonized over and second-guessed. By contrast, I only have vague memories of designing the Cataract, because it all seemed so natural and logical- a Euclidean proof in fact. Once I had a clear vision of how the chair had to perform, it all came together.

I should mention that “how it looked” was almost the last consideration when designing the Cataract. The process started life as an experiment in performance. The final form was simply the result of the required geometry, coupled with my personal aesthetic.

I should also mention that the client was pretty-open minded about the budget. The first Cataract was essentially hand-made and believe it or not, I don’t actually remember what I charged him for it. But I was excited about the Cataract. I really believed in it. So Alex (my workshop manager) and I jigged up the Cataract and made a run of them.

And we were mortified. The Cataract is not an easy chair to make. There is a lot of hand work in it, especially the crest rail and the transitions from the legs to the rockers. Even the glue-up is a nightmare. When we priced it, we realized that to hit our hourly rate, the Cataract would cost $2,343 incl. GST. I thought that this might severely limit the market for them.

Top Left; Alex MacFarlane shapes the crest rail of a Cataract Ergonomic Rocker using a hand held grinder. One slip and he could ruin an almost complete chair. Photograph by Evan Dunstone

Bottom Left: Yours-truly gluing up a Cataract Ergonomic Rocker frame. Eight clamps must be applied using specially designed blocks in just the right sequence. Photograph by William Bayliss.

It’s Hard to Pick a Winner

At the time (2009) I thought the Cataract would only be used as a desk chair.I was expecting that we would only make and sell perhaps 10 a year. But almost immediately people started buying and using them as dining chairs.

Until the Cataract, all my chairs looked and performed like “other” chairs. Even if you argue that they were “good” chairs (strong, light, attractive, well crafted) they were competing with other chairs in that category. But there wasn’t (and still isn’t) another chair competing directly with the Cataract. If you like a rocking dining chair, then your choice is the Cataract or its sister chair the Tamar rocker. I am not aware of another solid timber chair that is even similar, let along comparable (there are a few designs with metal skids/rockers that could be said to be in a similar performance category).

One of the ironies of this story is that we were making much bigger “runs” of Cataracts than we had ever expected. Instead of perhaps 10 a year, we were making 40 or 50 a year. This allowed us to invest in better jigs and better equipment to make the production easier and quicker. The price of the Cataract rocker has remained $2,343 incl. GST since 2009, because we have continually become faster at them. I know that I will have to put the price up this Christmas, but it has been a sort of game to see if we can improve upon each batch.

One last thing; I can almost never tell when a design will resonate with the public. After nearly a quarter century as a furniture maker, it still comes as a surprise when a design does or does not resonate with the public. The only constant is this- our work has to out-perform “other” furniture for us to keep finding a market.

– Evan Dunstone

Below: A Seren table in blackwood with six matching Cataract Ergonomic Rockers in the old Dunstone Design showroom. Photograph by Bronwen Healy.